tt.humanist :: forum :: commentary :: governance
The Budget - TT Humanist Perspective
01 October 2010 • 877 words
The Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association is primarily concerned with the application of rationality, empiricism, ethics, and compassion to policy-making. These are the criteria by which we have analysed the country’s main policy document, the 2010-2011 Budget presented on September 8 by Finance Minister Winston Dookeran. We are not so much concerned with the specifics, but with the general principles underlying particular programmes, since we believe that sound principles are necessary for effective implementation and national progress.
In this regard, the very title of the Budget was misleading: the Government showed little signs of “Facing the issues” nor do we believe that the measures will succeed in “turning the economy around”. Like all former administrations, the People’s Partnership in this Budget has shown that it places politicking over effective policy-making. This is not genuine politics, where the goal is conciliating interests and persuading people to make sacrifices when necessary. Hence the Budget expenditures of $83 million on laptops for First Form students (a policy unsupported by any pedagogical evidence) and a $1000 across-the-board increase for police officers (money which might have been better used to incentivise performance). But politics cannot replace effective policy when the time comes to present the next Budget.
The core fact is, the T&T economy will not be turned around unless sacrifices are made. This Budget is noteworthy for catering to every sector, which is why it met with mostly positive comments from business interests as well as the average citizen. (As far as the disgruntled go, the Government should be commended in sticking to its guns in respect to the demands from Clico investors.) However, this purported emphasis on stimulus rather than austerity is unlikely to kick-start our energy-based economy. A turnaround will occur if, and only if, oil and gas prices go up. Therefore, by presenting a deficit Budget, the Government has only played for time, which means that, in the absence of higher energy revenues over the next fiscal year, the inevitable austerity measures will be even harsher when the market, inevitably, demands its pound of flesh. The country has already seen unemployment begin to creep up, with a probably too-low estimate of 6.3 percent at present and an inflation rate already back in double digits at 16.2 percent.
We suspect there is not much the Government can do to control, or even facilitate, the economy in the next fiscal year. They must therefore concentrate on social measures, mainly to prepare and protect the most vulnerable segments of the society if and when austerity becomes necessary. The Budget’s facilitation of mentoring programmes conducted by community based organisations is a welcome step, especially in Tobago, where villages are still very close-knit and young persons tend to retain a considerable sense of connection to members of all ages of the community. Such a programme based in the community encourages autonomy and State-independent citizen efficacy, which is very high on the humanist agenda. Care must be taken to ensure what this “mentorship” reasonably means and entails, for both mentor and mentee. It is of crucial importance, for instance, that mentors and mentees simultaneously undergo considerable training in critical thinking throughout the programme. Such a component would help the at-risk youth develop within themselves the capacity to weigh options about career choices (including illegal ones) and their associated costs monetary, emotional, psychological and otherwise. It would also provide a golden opportunity for the disadvantaged youth to feel a sense of partnership in a form of intellectual work with a caring, responsible adult. Given that healthy economies employ large numbers of skilled workers with considerable intellectual skills, such a component is a critical factor of any serious mentoring programme intended to help the nation “change course”.
Even the laptop programme, since it is in place, must be used to set up a proper heuristic foundation for an appreciation of knowledge, utilising a bottom-up approach to education i.e. shifting back emphasis to primary rather than tertiary education, and encouraging more teacher input into policy-making and expenditure. In his presentation, the Finance Minister asserted that “tertiary education is a major driver of economic competitiveness in an increasingly knowledge driven global economy.” However, the Budget missed the opportunity to state how our political elite intends to get the education system from where it is to where we ought to be. It does not deal with the fundamentals of improving the quality of education delivery, particularly to the children of the nation. It ignores our high illiteracy rates (including functional illiteracy) and pretends that all is well at the primary and secondary school level. So instead of facing the issues squarely we make clichéd statements about tertiary education and global competiveness. Facing the issues squarely and talking to those involved in the education system would probably have yielded some simple, mundane, implementable approaches instead we have chosen to again throw some money and “bling” at a problem and hope that it will go away, hence the “laptop solution”
Lastly, past Budgets have been notable in their failures to properly benchmark. When the Finance Minister returns to Parliament for his 2011-2012 Budget presentation, citizens must hear what was and wasn’t achieved, so everyone can understand the national situation and make informed judgements and decisions.